A Journey of Ten Thousand Vertices

It was during a temporary job that one takes between academic positions when I was reintroduced to computer games. I say “reintroduced” because I grew up when the Atari gamestation, Pac-Man, and the mall video arcade were coming of age. Although my junior-high school friends spent numerous hours – and quarters – in dimly-lit rooms mastering the intricacies of Battlezone, Tron, and Space Invaders, I was less interested in these pastimes. On the one hand, I never could earn enough quarters to support and cultivate a serious gaming habit. On the other hand, I also did not find the narrative of these early computer games to be exceptionally captivating or persuasive. What ever the reason was, economic or aesthetic, I did not get hooked on computer games as a teenager and I continued to eye them suspiciously as a waste of time and money as I grew older. So when a fellow worker at the aforementioned job invited me to the LAN (local area network) party he was throwing, I begrudgingly accepted – but only for the sake of collegiality. I would simply drop in, play a few rounds of whatever they had running on their computers, and then quickly return home.

It has been a few years since that first LAN party, and in the meanwhile I have built my own gaming “rig” (a term used to describe a PC with added hardware functionality that can support graphically rich 3D computer environments), try to keep up with recent game releases, and have expanded my academic research topics to include game studies, digital game-based learning (DGBL), computer-assisted language learning (CALL), and situated cognition. Why the change of heart? Well, I would have to say it was the vastly improved game narrative and computer graphics; it was an unmistakable “sense of place” that gave me vertigo in Half-Life 2 or knowing exactly what to do in Battlefield 2142 as I had interacted with the virtual landscape repeatedly.

It is this sense of place and knowing what to do in this place that, in my opinion, makes computer games a valuable instructional medium for learning a foreign language. And with technology and open source software being what it is today, it is absolutely reasonable to assume that even small language departments and universities can develop a DGBL environment on their own — or at least a small prototype. I’m surprised (and perhaps a bit dismayed) that language departments have not yet leveraged this technology to bring themselves squarely into the 21st century.

So, this blog will document the efforts of the Elon University DigiBahn Project to create a DGBL environment based on the sociocultural spaces of a German railroad station, namely Stuttgart Central. In the end, we hope to have a 3D graphic adventure game requiring students to navigate this station while meeting specific instructional goals such as purchasing a train ticket, locating the appropriate track, making sense of arrival and departure tables, and interacting with non-player characters (NPCs). We’ve already begun to get the 3D models (meshes) together and in the coming weeks (months?) will work on texturing them and getting them into a game engine. Interesting to think that all these vertices, simply coordinates in virtual 3D space, can create an educational experience larger than the sum of their individual parts.

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